Breaking through a defensive barrier

Managing Resistance Change Leadership Series The Terrace Initiaitve

Breaking through a defensive barrier


Emotions drive behaviour, and in the workplace it is crucial to understand and acknowledge the emotions that drive resistance to change. Therefore, a key trait of the successful change leader is a deliberate and conscious approach towards surfacing and then managing the emotions underpinning resistance in their team.

As you embark on your change journey, shift your focus from driving efficiency and instead be prepared to have the same conversation many times over. Become the champion for change on a repeat loop through open and honest conversations with your people – by doing so, you’ll stay informed and maintain a better position to modify your change strategy in an agile manner, should the need arise.

By employing a consistent and constant message through a transparent forum that promotes two-way feedback, you can overcome the ‘fight or flight’ response as your team gets used to hearing about change being the “new normal.” Making it part of your mantra is critical to removing your team’s initial inertia and creating momentum.

We have explored a few ways of managing resistance in this series – the first article spoke about managing resistance as silence, and in the second we identified resistance as questioning. Today, let’s explore resistance as stonewalling.


You formulate your change message, tailor it to your audience and deliver it perfectly. You involve your team in the process. Your translation of the change vision couldn’t be more on point. You can see most of your team nodding along with you, which you interpret as tacit understanding and acceptance. Everyone’s on the journey!

Then, you ask a team member, who we’ll call John, to complete a task that will directly contribute towards the change program. He looks back at you blankly and replies: “The idea will never work. We tried it five years ago and it didn’t work then. Nothing’s changed, so why do you think it will work now?”

You think…

You may think “How gutless! Why didn’t he speak up while we were talking about this as a group? Why is he deliberately stonewalling?” You may also interpret his blank expression and negative response as a sign to expect more of the same when asking your team to complete tasks that contribute to the change effort.
Stonewalling is one of the toughest responses to tackle without becoming defensive. Because John is actively resisting your idea by being deliberately difficult, it can summon an immediate desire to confront the overt negativity.


While stonewalling may look aggressive, difficult or even childish from the outside, it feels very differently on the inside. The defensive stonewaller is simply trying to protect himself.

John may have experienced poor change management previously, where his effort and enthusiasm for the project went to waste. Consider his personality – for example, if John is a “details guy” he is someone who needs to personally understand all the reasoning behind the decision making, the facts, and figures. This personality type needs time to think things through before getting on board.

Perhaps John’s stonewalling resistance is more about his lack of understanding – of the change required, the reasons behind it, the process to get there, or the specific tasks you’re asking him to complete. By seeking to understand John’s experiences and his concerns, you may be able to identify what else he needs to embrace your change fully.


Because defensive stonewalling comes from a place of intense and overwhelming feelings (the person is figuratively fleeing confrontation by shutting down), further conflict of any kind only exacerbates the situation. By confronting stonewalling directly, you are likely to invite more of the same; or more open aggression.

Instead, consider John’s point of view. Many times people stonewall to avoid feeling inadequate – it might be worth your while to look for the motivation behind this type of resistance. The key to managing an avoidant response such as stonewalling is managing both the emotional side of change, as well as the practical elements. Here are some suggested tactics to help John feel less overwhelmed:

  • Identify the source of discomfort – this could mean a separate conversation outside of the change project to drill down into areas of John’s motivations and fears
    • “What is your understanding of the situation?”
    • “What is your understanding of the situation?”
    • “What is most important to you in this situation?”
    • “Can you tell me a bit more about…?”
    • “What do you think a good outcome might look like?”
    • “What are the obstacles to reaching that outcome?”
    • “What would you like to see / what would you like to happen next?”

Take a break if stonewalling starts again – either reschedule the conversation or move onto a more neutral topic:

  • Listening, rather than directing, is an effective tool to guide John through his feelings of agitation over the impending change to ultimately understand the source of the resistance
  • Co-create a strategy or plan to mitigate the resistance and get John on board with the change
  • Regularly check in with John outside of scheduled meetings.

We can help you manage resistance and become a more effective change leader. Get in touch with us regarding the Change Leadership Series.
In our next article, we’ll consider how Resistance as Undermining may show up in your team, and some tactics that will help you address this.

If you’d like to develop your change leadership skills or find out more about managing resistance to change in your team, please contact:
Corrie Scheepers –


Other Articles in the series:

managing resistance change leadership series the terrace initiative

Introduction to Managing Resistance





When Silence is not Golden





managing resistance change leadership series the terrace initiative

Is there such a thing as too many questions?





The Terrace Initiative Managing Resistance

Undermining – Dealing with difficult people